Monday, August 4, 2008

Birth of the Cool: Karl Benjamin

Red, Blue, Pink, 1958
Totem Group IV, 1957
Last Saturday I went to Oakland with several new friends (SF Mike of and Matthew of to see the "Birth of the Cool" show at the Oakland Museum. The day was utterly delightful and, through the show, I was introduced to a whole group of painters new to me. Birth of the Cool invokes a 1959 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum called Four Abstract Classicists, which featured the work of Lorser Feitelson, John McLauglin, Karl Benjamin, and Frederick Hammersley.The show at the Oakland Museum presented a cross-section of art created in Southern California in the 1950, from hard-edge abstraction to architecture, furniture design, animation and jazz. It was an innocent, upbeat time and the work reflected that aesthetic with clean lines, playful yet not too self indulgent. Designers were fascinated with the new uses of plastic and steel and totally oblivious - in architecture - to considerations of economy, energy and space. Matthew pointed out how he had smashed into one of the huge glass sliding doors that were so popular at the time and other commentators on his blog remarked on how cold the Eischer buildings were. Apparently they leaked heat through all those huge glass windows and doors, which would make them far too extravagant for today's economy. America was on top and although McCarthyism laid a dark shadow over parts of the landscape, it doesn't seem to have touched these artists and designers or their rather Utopian vision of how American should, could live.

I had never heard of Karl Benjamin (or the other painters either) and found his work very intriguing. He painted overlapping and interlocking precise forms in startling color combinations that still look fresh. In a 2002 interview (NY Times), Benjamin explains that he stopped painting back in 1995. A bad back, a bad hip and “years of drinking too much,” he said, made handling the canvases difficult. “I started getting too creaky to haul these things around

"A self-taught artist, Mr. Benjamin began painting in 1950 while working as a grade school teacher. His principal started it all by asking him to add 47 minutes a week of art instruction to the curriculum."

“I bought some crayons and paper,” he said. “And the kids drew trucks, trees, mountains. That was boring, so I said, No trucks, no trees. And they said, What should we do? I said the right thing, even though I didn’t have any background in art. I said, Be quiet and concentrate.”

That exercise — ultimately a lesson in “finding the right color to put down next to another” — is not far from Mr. Benjamin’s own sense of composition. As he likes to say, “Color is the subject matter of painting.”

“As an abstract painter, you’re always flying in the face of your country’s values,” he said. “All of a sudden (Morris) Louis is selling a lot, but I’ve never made a lot of money. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about getting the colors right.”

These are words that ought to be inscribed in letters 20 feet high over the entrance to every art department or art school in the country. Be quiet, concentrate and get the colors right. Thank you Mr. Benjamin!

1 comment:

Matty Boy said...

Interesting story. Thanks for sharing this.